Six hundred dollars.

That’s how much money residents of Washington State donated to the “No” campaign in the 2013 initiative concerning genetic engineering. The vote was not about banning the use of gene splicing techniques, nor about regulating them. It was not about warning consumers away from genetically modified products. It wasn’t even about studying the practice. All it proposed to do was require food products to indicate on their packaging whether they contained genetically altered ingredients. Not, you would think, the stuff of all-out war. In fact, it’s a rather milquetoast policy change.

Yet Big Ag treated the measure like Pearl Harbor; it sought to make an example of Washington’s I-522. The NO committee buried the proposition in $22 million of campaign cash. The biggest checks came from the Grocery Manufacturers (which collected it from Coke, Pepsi, and other junk food brands), Monsanto, and the agricultural arms of Dow, DuPont, and Bayer.

That’s more money than any initiative campaign, pro or con, had ever spent in the Northwest. It’s more than Jay Inslee or Rob McKenna spent running for governor. In fact, it’s not far off from what those two men spent together. It’s substantially more than the collective campaign budgets of every single candidate for the state house in 2012. And every one of those $22 million went to decide whether Coke bottles, for example, might have to say somewhere on them, “Partially produced with genetic engineering.”

This story neatly encapsulates the state of initiative politics in the Northwest nowadays. In the words of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Joel Connelly, dean of Cascadian political reporters, “Citizens have a right to put something on the ballot, and special interests have the right to spend a fortune beating up on it, which usually works.”

It worked for Big Ag in 2013. Saturation advertising pushed public opinion from large majorities for “yes” in September to a slim “no” vote in November, just as it had in California in 2012. But Big Ag failed in its larger ambition of kneecapping the entire GMO-labeling movement. I-522’s sponsors announced immediately after the election that they’d be back to try again in 2016 when a presidential election might turn out a bigger, younger electorate more skeptical of corporate claims.

This year, Oregon citizens have put a similar measure on the ballot. Big Ag is keeping its powder dry so far, with no money yet spent, but a full-on political carpet bombing is in the forecast. The No committee is formed, co-directed by a local lobbyist for the pesticide and gen-tech industries and the DC-based chief lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the owners of radio and TV stations across the Beaver State smacking their lips in anticipation of the impending ad sales.

The SCOTUS-Populism Trap

The money spent in Northwest candidate races is an obscenity, as I’ve said. It converts would-be tribunes of the people into glorified telemarketers who spend their lives begging for alms from 1 percenters. It filters who runs and what they think about every subject, bending every issue through the lens of the donor class. It converts democracy to oligarchy.

“SCOTUS has us trapped on one side; voters do on the other.” 
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But the money in the initiative process has become an obscenity on an even grander scale: a reeking mountain of corporate and billionaire manure trucked in from every corner of the nation. Citizens initiatives, originally conceived as a means for the public to bypass a legislature in the clutches of Big Money, are now often just a way that Big Money can itself bypass a legislature. Todd Donovan, professor of political science at Western Washington University in Bellingham, says, “it’s lobbying by other means.”

Or, in the words of former Republican Washington State legislator Toby Nixon, “If you’ve got money, you’ve got two options for getting your will done.”

  • That’s a problem, and it’s compounded by another problem, arguably a bigger one: most of the obvious solutions are blocked.

    The Supreme Court of the United States has written itself into a head-smackingly myopic view of political spending, in which money is always protected free speech, and the only kind of corruption that legislators can regulate is the kind in which cash is exchanged for votes. Consequently, there is shockingly little that Oregon or Washington can do about these periodic deluges of mass-lobbying cash.

    Richard Ellis, professor of politics at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, describes the trap that Oregon initiative reformers are in (Washington reformers are similarly stuck):

    Those who wish to reform the initiative process in Oregon face two imposing obstacles: the courts and the state’s political culture. The reforms that most voters readily endorse—banning paid signature gatherers and restricting funding—have been prohibited by the US Supreme Court as violations of free speech rights. The reforms that the courts apparently will allow—increasing signature thresholds, adding geographic requirements [so that shares of signatures must be collected in each county or Congressional district], and requiring supermajority votes for passage—run headlong into two powerful strains in American political culture: libertarianism and populism. Suspicion of government and faith in the people converge in a profound distrust of legislators.

    SCOTUS has us trapped on one side; voters do on the other: they won’t agree to reduce their own rights to use the initiative process, by making the initiative process any more demanding. This article and its successors describe the most promising ways to escape this trap.

    Next time, I will describe the history of initiatives and how their price has inflated.

    Thanks to Jane Harvey for researching this article. In addition to the $600 donated to the No on 522 campaign, the campaign also received various in-kind contributions from Washington residents. The Grocery Manufacturers raised about half of the No campaign’s funds through a separate PAC. A very small share of these funds—no more than 2.5 percent—may also have come from Washington sources.